Building Kids’ Vocabulary Doesn’t Have to Involve Words

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The stronger a child’s vocabulary, the more successful she tends to be in school, and new research shows that the word-building can begin before kids start talking.

Child development experts have long advised parents to talk to their babies, even if their infants can’t talk back. The more a parent talks to his child, the more words they are likely to learn. Now comes new work suggesting that even non-verbal cues such as pointing to objects can encourage vocabulary building regardless of socioeconomic status. It’s not just the quantity of words spoken, then, that’s important but the quality of the learning environment that may make the greatest difference.

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To come to this conclusion, researchers from the University of Chicago videotaped the daily interactions of 50 parents and their toddlers over two 90-minute sessions when the kids were 14 months to 18 months. In order to tease apart the parents who used non-verbal cues from those who relied more on verbal communication, the researchers bleeped out a key word from 10 randomly selected 40-second clips of these recordings. They asked another 218 adults to watch these clips and guess which word the parent was saying at the beep.

The scientists then defined those situations in which the participants were easily able to determine the word — for example, guessing that the recorded parent was saying “book” if he said it while the child was walking to a bookshelf — as involving non-verbal cues, and classified the environments in which it was harder to guess the missing word as being primarily verbal ones.

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Most of the parents used non-verbal cues from 5% to 38% of the time. Three years later, about the time the youngsters entered kindergarten, the researchers assessed their vocabularies and found that children with the biggest vocabularies also had parents whose beeped-out words were more easily deduced in the recording clips. Giving new words context with non-verbal cues could explain about 22% of the difference in vocabularies among children whose parents used them v. those who did not.

“Children’s vocabularies vary greatly in size by the time they enter school,” the study’s lead author, Erica Cartmill, a postdoctoral scholar at University of Chicago, said in a statement. “Because preschool vocabulary is a major predictor of subsequent school success, this variability must be taken seriously and its sources understood.”

The researchers say that the advantage previous studies have shown among higher income children when it comes to linguistic skills may be due to the fact that their parents tend to be more educated, and to talk to them more, flooding them with a large quantity of words. But the latest findings suggest that the quality of the learning environment may be able to compensate for a smaller number of words to which an infant is exposed. Understanding how both verbal and non-verbal methods enhance children’s language skills could give more parents fresh opportunities for helping their children to become better communicators.